about

Olya and Rob Willis are well known for their work in collecting traditional Australian folk.

Rob and Olya Willis


of interest

Reference copies of any audio tapes for research are available through the Oral History section of The National Library of Australia. Contact the reference Librarian: HPECHENI@nla.gov.au

Photograph of Jessica, Nicola, Melanie, Helen and Rob taken at Hobart, Tasmania 1999
by Olya Willis

WHEN I WAS YOUNG AND HAD NO SENSE
Children's rhymes, songs and games
from Tasmania

© Olya and Rob Willisl

"When I was young and had no sense I took a girl behind the fence" was the opening line of the first bawdy children's rhyme I learnt in the oral tradition. My age was about six I think and what happened to the girl once she got behind the fence did not mean a great deal to me. I developed a passion for risque rhymes after that and my memory still retains fragments of songs learnt at school.

In later years when I began recording oral history and folklore for The National Library under the guidance of John Meredith he revived my interest in these children's rhymes. John always asked our informants of their memories in this area.

Olya however was raised in the Ukrainian tradition learning many traditional poems but not coming in contact with children's rhymes or games. Possibly the reason for this was that there were no other Ukrainian children of her age group living in close proximity. Her first recollection of rhymes was in primary school when selection rhymes featured greatly in the formation of teams either for sport or in small group games such as elastics.

As a teacher for the past 20 years Olya has come across many rhymes and games, both in infants and primary school. In recent years she has noticed a decline in the learning and playing of these rhymes and games in her school.

On a recent collecting trip to Tasmania, Olya and I were recording Andrew Smith in Hobart. Andrew, who holds a senior position with the Tasmanian Education Department, is at present researching a book on the legendary hillbilly singer and collector of folk music, Tex Morton .

Rob Willis and girls

As part of our interview we asked about any children's ditties that Andrew and his wife remembered. They had several songs but suggested we talk with their daughters. The girls aged 12 and 14 had quite a collection of songs and yarns and two of their friends who were the same age also joined the session. After obtaining the necessary written permission and with the parents present we recorded their repertoire.

We noticed that the content of these recordings contain more material that was relevant to current issues than the material we had learnt in our own youth. Subjects that are mentioned include drugs, AIDS and suicide.

There's a bear in there
In an electric chair
People with Aids and hand grenades
Open wide commit suicide
It's Playschool

Can't cope
Don't mope
There's hope
Smoke dope

Aids kill don't be silly
Put a condom on that willy

Selection rhymes prior to playing a game were a part of our youth and our memories of these rhymes involved racist ditties involving "Niggers" and toes. The girls had several of these rhymes where each word would refer to a single person with the last named being 'out'. The verse would then start again.

There's a party on the hill would you like to come
Yes (answer)
Then bring a bottle of rum
Can't afford it (answer)
Then get lost

It dit dog shit
You trod in it

The macabre has had a place in children's fairy tales, verse and song.. The girls did not disappoint us with this version of a national song.

Waltzing Matilda
Who bloody killed her?
Lying on the grass
With a dagger up her arse

And yes risque rhymes are still there.
This particular verse would have been around for several years as Mr Presley's demise was in August 1977

Elvis Presley girls are sexy
Sitting in the bath tub drinking Pepsi
Went to the movies saw some boobies
OOOOOOH - Sexy

Another rhyme mentioned by the girls was a version of one I had learnt in my younger years in the late 1950's referring to the age of consent. The interesting part was that in my youth the "acceptable" age was 16 - It has now dropped to 12. An interesting reflection on how times have changed.

Olya and I are aware of the amount of children's material that is transmitted through print and asked the girls several times during the interview where they learnt their material. On all occasions they answered that they had picked it up from other friends and relations by word of mouth.

Thank goodness children's folklore is still alive and well and we have been motivated in our pursuit of this very important aspect of Australia's culture. We will continue to record children's folklore during the course of our interviews for The National Library of Australia.